What the GOP’s Big Win in Fort Bend County Means for 2020

The special election runoff rout is a sobering reminder for Democrats that the GOP still dominates much of Texas. But it wasn’t the 2020 death knell that Republicans have made it out to be.

Gary Gates speaks in front of campaign signs placed on a volunteer's lawn in Katy on January 11.
Gary Gates speaks in front of campaign signs placed on a volunteer's lawn in Katy on January 11. AP Photo/ John L. Mone

The special election runoff rout is a sobering reminder for Democrats that the GOP still dominates much of Texas. But it wasn’t the 2020 death knell that Republicans have made it out to be.

Gary Gates speaks in front of campaign signs placed on a volunteer's lawn in Katy on January 11.
Gary Gates speaks in front of campaign signs placed on a volunteer's lawn in Katy on January 11. AP Photo/ John L. Mone

Democrats wanted to send a message in the Texas House District 28 special election runoff. A strong performance by Democrat Eliz Markowitz in Fort Bend County’s reddest legislative district would have demonstrated that the Republican hold on the Texas suburbs—and House—was in peril ahead of the 2020 elections. 

Instead, Texas Republicans sent a message of their own. Republican Gary Gates on Tuesday trounced Markowitz by 16 percentage points, more than double the margin of victory enjoyed by now-retired incumbent John Zerwas in 2018. 

The runoff quickly became a proxy for Texas politics at large. The race served as a test case for Beto O’Rourke’s new organizing group, Powered By People. O’Rourke tapped into his massive volunteer network, recruiting more than 1,000 people to come and knock on more than 40,000 doors in the district, where he came within 3 percentage points of Ted Cruz in his 2018 Senate race. After Markowitz’s loss, Governor Greg Abbott, who mobilized his powerful political machine and bussed an army of volunteers to canvass the district on Gates’ behalf, gleefully trolled the Democrats’ figurehead. 

“Beto math was that if he won or was close in a House district then he could help a democrat win,” Abbott tweeted. “Beto math doesn’t work. All of that $ was incinerated.” Indeed, the final result of the runoff closely mirrored Abbott’s performance in the district, which he comfortably won by 15 percentage points.

Texas Republicans are spinning the blowout as a sign that Democrats’ campaign to flip at least nine state House seats and take control of the lower chamber is a Betomania-induced fever dream. The trouncing proved, in their view, that a 2020 cycle will be a reversion to the red Texas mean. (This, of course, papers over the fact that the big win took a lot of effort: Gates spent $1.5 million, and Abbott paid to send in the brigades.) 

There is no denying it’s a blow to the morale of state Democrats. Markowitz’s campaign was bolstered by support from an array of national and state Democratic groups that poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race. Heading into the homestretch, Democrats were heartened by the surge of volunteer support and were insistent that the race would be close. 

Beyond dashed hopes and wounded pride, though, the ramifications for Democrats in 2020 are fairly limited: HD-28 was never supposed to be seen as a bellwether. On Texas Democrats’ ambitious list of 22 targeted state House districts, it was ranked as the 16th most competitive. 

Markowitz’s failed run was more a casualty of the instant nationalization of down-ballot races in the era of Trump than a total rebuke of Democrats’ statewide electoral plans in a presidential election year. The national attention helped Markowitz attract high-profile support from O’Rourke and endorsements from presidential candidates Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Bloomberg. 

Eliz Markowitz's campaign for House District 28 was tapped as a test for Beto O'Rourke's new organizing venture.
Eliz Markowitz’s campaign for House District 28 was tapped as a test for Beto O’Rourke’s new organizing venture. But the district was never supposed to be seen as a bellwether.  Eliz Markowitz for Texas State Representative/sunny sone

But the surplus of exposure likely backfired, serving as a far more effective ideological propellant for the baked-in voting electorate. Abbott, Gates, and the rest of the party eagerly painted Markowitz—in TV and digital ads, on social media and in speeches—as an extension of radical socialist allies and a harbinger of a blue Texas. They tied her to O’Rourke’s controversial stances in his ill-fated presidential run, including proposals for a mandatory gun buybacks and the repeal of tax exemptions for churches that oppose same-sex marriage. In response, Republican voters swarmed the polls as turnout in the runoff reached historic levels—30,000 people voted, a 20 percent turnout rate. Sustained GOP voter enthusiasm heading into the runoff made it impossible for Markowitz to overcome the massive structural disadvantage in the district, despite turning out more Democratic voters than in the open primary. 

Still, Dems need not write off HD-28 as a lost cause. The grassroots network of volunteers mobilized by Markowitz, O’Rourke, and a slew of other local groups laid the groundwork for a Democratic infrastructure in the district, and that new base of organization will help lead voter registration and mobilization efforts leading up to 2020. Plus, Texas Democrats’ future does not live and die in HD-28. The path to a House majority runs mostly through more favorable terrain in solidly suburban seats in the Houston metro and Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, where Democratic challengers narrowly lost to GOP incumbents while O’Rourke and other statewide Dems won. Of course, those won’t be easy to flip. 

In many ways, HD-28 was a barebones test of both parties’ concentrated firepower and political prowess, and thus, a sobering reminder for Democrats that the GOP is still dominant in much of Texas. 

The GOP has a battle-tested machine and, thanks to Karl Rove, is schooled in the art of reactionary suburban politics. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party—newly energized by O’Rourke and down-ballot gains in 2018—is like a young Bambi still trying to take baby steps into largely uncharted suburban territory.

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Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or email him at [email protected].


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